Learn More—Remember Less

Life is perverse. My friends will tell you that I have always said this. I have been saying it for as long as I can remember and certainly at least since I was a teen. I don’t know where I got it from. I most likely heard it somewhere. Possibly from someone at my first place of work. There is a small chance that it is an original idea but I have no way of proving this.

I just finished reading something on Goodshit that adds another grain into my bag of proof for “Life is Perverse”. It seems the more we input into our brains the less we remember.

According to research done by Radvansky, Krawietz, and Tamplin and recently published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology [1632-1645 DOI: 10.1080/ 17470218.2011.571267]* in order to file and remember things the brain clumps stuff up into useful little episodes. As we ‘travel’ through each each hour of our lives our brain is clumping stuff up into neat little episodes. From what I can work out an episode can span seconds, minutes, or hours. It is these episodes that the brain then codes up and files away.

As we travel further along our life-line stored episodes become more and more difficult to recall and the detail in each episode becomes harder to clarify. When an episode is recalled its place in the memory queue is updated and the contents of the episode are sharpened depending on how much of the episode is replayed.

Based on the research findings our brain’s ability to recall and decode an episode is not so much impacted by the age of an episode but more so by how many episodes have been stored since the required episode was originally filed away or last recalled and replayed.

Episodes that have too many episodes stored in front of them eventually become almost impossible for the brain to locate and decode. In other words, in theory (and I have to keep saying that because, like so much that we know, this is only a theory), as an example, a person who is trying to remember something from five years ago that is 10,000 episodes back will have a much better chance of success than someone who has 50,000 episodes of stuff stored over the same five years**.

So, assuming the theoretical outcomes determined by this study are correct, then the more episodes per day we cause our brain to code up and store away then the more episodes we are going to push into the ‘difficult/impossible to remember’ zone.


* I have no idea what these numbers mean but they were in the original article and they looked useful so I have included them here. Presumably someone who knows how to use them could actually find the source material for this research paper using these numbers.

** I have have just used the numbers 10,000 and 50,000 for the purposes of the example. I have no idea how many ‘episodes’ the average person’s brain stores away in five years and no such metrics were mentioned in the article I read.